N.J. Transit’s Most Troubled Trains Are Older Than Many of the Riders

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

March 12, 2020

An old Arrow III car being maintained at a repair facility in Kearny, N.J. The coaches have a poor performance record. 

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What happens when a railroad runs trains older than many of its riders?

On New Jersey Transit, the nation’s third-busiest commuter rail, riders are regularly learning the unhappy answers.

Aging trains, not surprisingly, tend to break down. When they do that means cancellations, but even when trains run they have fewer cars.

That leaves riders, many of whom pay hundreds of dollars for monthly passes, squeezed into every available space, including the gangway between cars, which is considered unsafe.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy and New Jersey Transit officials have repeatedly cited a shortage of engineers to drive trains and a federal mandate to install an automatic-braking system as the prime causes of the railroad’s dismal performance.

But the railroad is handicapped by another problem that is not as well publicized and will take years to fix: It relies on rail cars that are among the oldest in the country.

New Jersey Transit is still running a batch of passenger cars that were built more than 40 years ago and have outlived their useful lives — more than once.

Agency officials acknowledge the problem, but say they are doing their best to address shortcomings that were years in the making.

The coaches, known as Arrow IIIs, are the oldest passenger cars in daily use by any commuter railroad in the New York metropolitan area. They are single-deck cars, introduced when the railroad was carrying far fewer riders. In the late 1970s, New Jersey Transit carried about 70,000 passengers each weekday; today, its weekday ridership exceeds 310,000.

They were scheduled to be replaced by this year with double-decker cars that carry more passengers and have pairs of individual seats instead of benches that hold three people. But those new cars are not due for at least three years, leaving riders frustrated and pleading for relief.

“Why can’t we have those nice double-deckers?” said Nicole Zamarripa, who said she usually winds up on one of the cramped, old trains each way on her commute between New Brunswick, N.J., and Manhattan. “Either the brown leather ones or the ugly green, plasticky ones,” she said, alluding to the interiors of the old coaches.

Ms. Zamarripa, 25, said she does not use anything else in her life as old as those train cars.

When the coaches were built in the 1970s, nearly 20 years before her birth, their early riders did not have cellphones or laptop computers. They had yet to drink a Diet Coke or a Bud Light or lace up a pair of Nikes, but many of them smoked cigarettes aboard the trains, a practice that was not banned until the mid-1980s.

On a recent weekday, Ms. Zamarripa tweeted her frustration at watching a “basically empty” double-decker leave New York City as she sat on a packed, single-level train in the tunnel under the Hudson River.

Ms. Zamarripa, who pays $380 a month for her train pass and an additional $23 a day to park in downtown New Brunswick, said her trains are usually so full that some passengers are left standing, and some evenings she is one of them. “It’s not a happy commute,” she said.

When a rush-hour train is canceled because of what New Jersey Transit calls “equipment availability” or “engineer availability” issues, its regular riders are directed onto another train that may have few if any open seats.

Commuters frequently post pictures on social media of passengers standing elbow to elbow in the aisles and vestibules of trains headed in and out of Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them spend more than $400 a month to ride between their homes in New Jersey and their jobs in New York City.

While the transit agency notifies riders of canceled trains through social media or on departure boards, the agency does not post information about trains that have fewer cars.

But data provided by New Jersey Transit for this article showed that in the first three weeks of January, there were 11 days when the transit agency operated trains that were at least two cars shorter than usual — reducing the number of seats available on each of those trains by at least 230. Over the following six weeks, through March 6, it ran an average of 1.3 trains per day that were about two cars short, a New Jersey Transit spokesman said.

At a recent event to celebrate the graduation of a class of seven engineers who would soon be driving trains for New Jersey Transit, Mr. Murphy said the transit system “wasn’t broken in a day.” He added: “We can’t fix it in a day either. But we’re moving in the right direction.”

The agency addressed the problem of its dated fleet by committing in late 2018 to buy 113 double-decker cars from Bombardier Transportation for $669 million. When those cars start arriving in 2023, they will replace the Arrow IIIs, which should improve the railroad’s reliability, said Kevin Corbett, the chief executive of New Jersey Transit.

Until then, the agency will have to cope with difficult task of keeping the old cars on the tracks, which is proving hard to do.

The Arrows average only about 40,000 miles between breakdowns, compared with more than 350,000 miles for the railroad’s newer, double-decker coaches, Mr. Corbett said.

“We have had an issue with the Arrows,” Mr. Corbett said in a recent interview.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that most of the Arrow cars were designed as “married pairs,” which means that when one of them has to go to the shop for repairs, two cars are sidelined. When that happens, a 12-car train that could hold 1,380 seated passengers becomes a 10-car train with 1,150 seats.

“Then we’re going to have people standing,” Mr. Corbett said.

New Jersey Transit has 160 Arrow IIIs, out of about 1,000 passenger cars in its fleet.

Metro-North Railroad, which serves the suburbs north of New York, and the Long Island Rail Road both have about 140 M3 rail cars that were built in the mid-1980s, making up about one-eighth of each of those fleets, said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that operates the two railroads.

The oldest cars on the PATH train system linking Manhattan and New Jersey are 11 years old, said Scott Ladd, a spokesman for its operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But there are cars even older than the Arrows. Philadelphia’s SEPTA system has 231 Silverliner 4s that were built by General Electric between 1974 and 1977, said Andrew Busch, a spokesman for the agency. “It’s challenging keeping them going,” he said.

The Arrow IIIs were made in the late 1970s, also by General Electric, which is no longer in the business of making trains. They were completely overhauled in the mid-1990s, but have exceeded their life expectancy, New Jersey Transit officials said.

“They’re getting long in the tooth, no doubt about it,” said Jim Hindle, co-owner of a company that has been making parts for the Arrow III cars for more than 25 years.

Mr. Hindle is the president of Hitran Corp. in Flemington, N.J., which makes electrical components, including inductors that sit beneath the coaches and can weigh as much as 10,000 pounds.

Mr. Hindle’s company is a subcontractor to ABB, a European company that rebuilt the original Arrow IIIs in the 1990s, he said. That overhaul changed everything but the steel shells of the cars, he said, including converting the propulsion systems from direct current to alternating current.

Hitran, a private company with about 150 employees, is still getting orders for parts for the Arrows. At their February board meeting, the directors of New Jersey Transit approved a $3.4 million contract with Hitran for 69 main inductors for the Arrows. Inductors regulate the flow of electricity to the motors that power a train.

Making parts for the Arrows is a small piece of Hitran’s overall business, Mr. Hindle said, but he keeps a work area in the Flemington factory set aside for that purpose. “It took some very creative engineering to make this component work,” he said.

He said he has often stood in New Jersey Transit’s rail car repair facility in Kearny, N.J., “staring up at these things wondering how the hell they do keep them going.”

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